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The question of desegregation: where do we go from here?

It's been 50 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that different schools for black and white students were separate and unequal. The decision was a springboard for the growing civil rights movement in the United States, which helped to put an end to legalized segregation 14 years later across the country. The Brown case began in 1950, after Linda Brown, a seven-year-old black schoolgirl in Topeka, Kansas, was forced to attend Monroe Elementary, a black school that was an hour walk from her house, instead of the much closer Sumner Elementary, which happened to be white. Looking for a case to test the validity of segregation, the NAACP got the Brown family to register at Sumner. When she was denied admission into the school, she became the lead plaintiff in the suit, which would eventually dismantle segregation in America's public schools.


In its ruling, which took place four years later, the court stated that, "segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities."


"The Brown decision was significant, because it was a symbolic attack on racism," said Dr. Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, and author of Black Political Encyclopedia. "It said that racism was unconstitutional."

And as a result, after 10 years of resistance to desegregation, various public school systems in the south and in other parts of the country began to implement the court order. While "legal" segregation in public schools is something that has been relegated to the history books, 50 years after Brown, segregation still persists in American education.

A July 2001 study on the state of education by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that 70 percent of the nation's black students attend predominantly minority schools (with minority enrollment of over 50 percent), up significantly from the low point of 62.9 percent in 1980. And a third of the nation's black students (36.5 percent) attend schools with a minority enrollment of 90-100 percent.

"Our research consistently shows that schools are becoming increasingly segregated and are offering students vastly unequal educational opportunities," said Gary Orfield, the author of the report and head of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. "This is ironic considering that evidence exists that desegregated schools both improve test scores and positively change the lives of students."

The Civil Rights Project report calls for efforts to continue local desegregation plans and programs through litigation; more integrated metropolitan-wide magnet schools; creation of expertise on desegregation and race relations training in state departments of education; and a provision of funding for better counseling and transportation for inter-district transfer policies.

But one of the things that the report does not do is to call for providing a better education for students. Desegregated schools offer a benefit to students and society, as people from different races get to engage and interact with each other. But stressing a good education should be the focus of educators and civil rights activists, instead of focusing on integration at all costs, which has been the case since the Brown decision.

The re-segregation of schools has been taking place for the last 30 years, due primarily to the change in housing patterns across America. A large number of whites have moved out of the inner cities and urban areas into the suburbs, leaving behind blacks and other minorities who have moved into the cities. While many people moved out of the cities for newer housing, part of this shift in population was a result of the biggest educational issue in the last 25 years--how to integrate schools.

Forced busing was one of the primary tools used by civil rights attorneys and activist to integrate the schools. This caused anxiety, rejection and resentment among both the white and black populations that it affected.

In 1971, the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision authorized "forced busing" in Charlotte, North Carolina, making a national issue of court-ordered busing to achieve integration. Swann enacted the concept of busing, which sent kids from black neighborhoods into white neighborhoods, and kids from white neighborhoods to schools in black communities, as a way to integrate public schools and eliminate all vestiges of state-imposed segregation.

But instead of improving education with integration, the opposite took place. White reluctance to busing and, frankly, school integration led many to put their children in private schools or move to the suburbs where public schools wre primarily white. Today, while most suburban schools thrive, most in the inner city are suffering, as is evident in test scores and others areas of achievement that are used to measure group learning.

In cities like San Francisco other minority groups, such as Asian Americans, whose student population makes up 50 percent of the school district, have fought measures to desegregate the schools. They have instead pushed for more neighborhood schools.

While most black civil rights activists went along with busing, some objected to the inference that something was wrong with black people--that blacks had to sit next to whites in order to receive a good education. Others felt that blacks had to bear most of the burden of being disproportionately bused outside their community.

And busing minimized the involvement of the black community in the education of its children. "Busing took parents out of the educational process when it took the child out of the community," said Nathan Hare of the Black Think Tank, a San Francisco-based family institute.

As white flight occurred and busing continued, busing became an exercise in transporting black students across town to sit next to other black students who were moving into changing white neighborhoods. Today, school districts such as Charlotte, St. Louis and Boston have scaled back or gotten rid of forced busing, due to legal challenges by white plaintiffs, and the lack of enthusiasm for busing among the black community.

It is time to look at new ways to improve the schools by other means than relying on integration of schools to improve education. The first area that should be looked at is funding. Schools in most states are funded on local property taxes, which in a sense discriminates against poor communities. There should be a push to equalize the funding of inner city schools with that of schools in the suburban areas.

Other school districts are pushing the concept of higher standards through magnet and charter schools that are open to all of the students in the school district. Education activists should work on bringing these types of schools in urban areas that will impact black students. Some activists are open to the concept of school vouchers as a way to improve education. Others are calling on school districts to create more and improve existing neighborhood schools. Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent for the San Francisco Unified School district, is following that lead, with the initiation of the Dream Schools plan, which will begin building new and smaller schools in inner city areas of San Francisco that will benefit students of color.

Brown was a righteous decision that opened the doors of learning to all people. Fifty years later, it is time that we as a society work on ways to keep that door open, by improving schools within the communities that need education the most.

Lee Hubbard writes on society, politics and hip hop culture. For any question or feedback, he can be reached by e-mail at
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Author:Hubbard, Lee
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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